Leah Williamson: 'We have the fame but not the money – our lives literally changed overnight'

·6-min read
Leah Williamson exclusive: 'We have the fame but not the money – our lives literally changed overnight' - GETTY IMAGES
Leah Williamson exclusive: 'We have the fame but not the money – our lives literally changed overnight' - GETTY IMAGES

Mere days after Leah Williamson hoisted the Euro 2022 trophy in front of 87,000 people at Wembley she was in slightly less glamorous surroundings: the check-in desk at Stansted Airport about to board a budget Jet2 flight.

Not a private plane in sight, nor a business lounge where she could put her feet up, the England captain had not even paid for priority boarding. Instead she stood there, cap lowered, bag in hand, in airport chaos with no doubt slight brain fog induced by days of celebrations.

It might have felt like a smack back down to reality, if not for the fans who clamoured to greet her when she landed in Ibiza a few hours later.

“I just got a normal flight,” she shrugs with a small smile. “I definitely was not on a private jet – if I was, I would be very happy. But it was very comfortable, I had a lovely flight.

“Then when I got off the plane there’s people waiting to either express their congratulations or ask for pictures. It’s a hard adjustment.”

The story is a reminder of just how drastically the lives of Williamson and the rest of her England team have changed. Her trip to Ibiza with a close friend was typical for this down-to-earth captain, whose authenticity shone through as she led her Lionesses team to England’s first major trophy since 1966.

Hurrying into the central London rooftop restaurant where we meet, bright-eyed Williamson appears unchanged by her sudden celebrity status. As she sits down for her first newspaper interview since the Euros final, she tries to offer her agent her wallet to pay for her own hot chocolate.

She is still on a “cloud” and meets Telegraph Sport after guest editing BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. But the reality of just how famous she now is can feel daunting.

There have been great moments and bizarre ones, like the shopkeeper who waited until the moment she was about to turn away to whisper “congratulations”. Or her aunt paying for a packet of Doritos only to exclaim when she saw Williamson’s face branded across it.

But there is also a high level of scrutiny with becoming a household name, including paparazzi snapping her and team-mates in their bikinis at Ibiza pool parties.

“If you want to do what we’re doing, I think then you have to accept a certain level of attention,” she says. “The fame has come with it, but we can’t protect ourselves from it. I worry about things like that, because naturally we’re at the top of our game and history tells you that people will try to bring you down.

“We don’t have the same means of protection that somebody very wealthy would, who has that level of fame. The life that we live, we’re not rich, we’re not wealthy. We live normal lives and we do a sport that’s so high profile.

“That change is difficult I think. I’m just conscious I want to protect the girls from that, because what we’ve done is amazing but it’s literally changed” – she snaps her fingers – “overnight. There was no gradual build-up to it.”

The Lionesses triumphed in extra-time in a nail-biting final against Germany - PA
The Lionesses triumphed in extra-time in a nail-biting final against Germany - PA

Williamson, 25, takes her captaincy very seriously. At the last major tournament, the 2019 World Cup, she played just a few minutes as a substitute but at the home Euros she was England’s figurehead.

Though Williamson is not captain of her Arsenal side, she had long been tipped for future leadership with England and the chance came when long-time captain Steph Houghton was sidelined through injury last season. It was something Williamson seemed to slot into easily, but she admits she struggled initially with the prospect of taking on the role.

“People talk about the captaincy being an achievement and I’m so uncomfortable with that,” she says. “It’s not an achievement. To be captain is an extended duty that you have to be ready to do properly.

“As a footballer I’d got myself in a position where I really backed myself, but as a person I had never captained anywhere else in my senior career, so I just had to sit with it, check if I felt like a fraud and think: am I comfortable with this?

“Because if I’m not then I won’t be who I need to be for the team. My gut said yeah. It turned out all right in the end I suppose.” 

Williamson was given the permanent captaincy in April by manager Sarina Wiegman, who controversially did not select Houghton for the final Euros squad when she returned to fitness. It was an awkward situation, but Williamson says Houghton was especially supportive despite her disappointment.

“I reached out to Steph [after the final], the same way I reached out to loads of people. With someone like Steph, she’s so important to the team, she deserves every credit she’s got for the work she’s done. As a team-mate, let alone as a captain, she’s supported me the whole time. And our win is just as much hers as anyone else's.”

The Lionesses have made a point of sharing their win around. In the immediate aftermath of victory, Williamson made a rallying cry, shouting hoarsely and passionately into the microphone live on the BBC: “The legacy of this tournament is a change in society. We have brought people together, brought people to games. We want people at WSL games.”

'We don't want to waste what we've done'

She wants the Women’s Super League to evolve with this momentum, including long-term planning for bigger stadiums to become a regular part of the league. But the Lionesses' main aim now is to “affect change” at grass-roots level.

Even while celebrating on a rooftop bus after their wild victory parade in Trafalgar Square, team-mate Lotte Wubben-Moy was hashing out a plan to use their newfound platform to millions to make an impact.

Forty-eight hours later the Lionesses penned an open letter calling for Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak to make a commitment to guarantee equal opportunity for girls to play football at school.

“We don’t want to waste what we’ve done,” Williamson says. “We used to go into schools individually, but now we have the power to effect change on a massive scale. What better way to do it than in schools, where we found the barriers hardest for us?”

Though neither candidate for prime minister has fully made that commitment yet, Williamson is confident the message has landed - the Lionesses will make sure of it, she says. “We know it’s reached the right places. But it just depends on how much they are committed to making that change. It’s definitely something we’re not going to let fall.”